Curiosity, Culture, and Engagement with Science Documentaries

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Asheley R. Landrum, Annenberg Public Policy Center, Philadelphia, PA
Background: Premier science documentaries attract an audience that is disproportionately affluent, well educated, less religious and more politically liberal. But why? After all, there is ample evidence that interest in science extends to a diverse range of citizens. Concerned filmmakers thus worry that their audiences are smaller than they should be, not because of a lack of science interest, but because these films appeal only to specific cultural groups. Our study aimed to test this “missing audience” hypothesis. Methods: Data was collected from an online nationally-representative panel in Sept. 2015. Respondents (N=2,764) viewed and answered questions about a video clip on the evolution of color vision. We developed measures of science curiosity and viewer engagement using item response theory. We used latent class modeling to explore whether the relationship between curiosity and engagement varied across individuals of different cultural styles. Results:  (1) Using a combination of self-report and behavioral items, we constructed a valid scale of science curiosity (SCI) that has a high degree of measurement precision, an appropriate relationship with relevant covariates, and predicts meaningful differences in objective manifestations of science curiosity. (2) Engagement with the clip did not vary to a meaningful degree among respondents with comparable SCI levels but opposing evolution beliefs. In fact, people with high SCI who disbelieve evolution were still very likely to accept the validity of the science in the clip. (3) Still, engagement did vary by cultural style. Of the groups identified by latent class modeling, one displayed a marked lack of engagement relative to its members’ SCI scores. It consisted of individuals who are hierarchical and individualistic in their cultural outlooks, very conservative politically, slightly above average in science comprehension, and below average in religiosity. Individuals with this cultural profile are understood to be pro-technology in their orientations and thus presumably should be engaged by premier science documentaries. Conclusions: The current study offers several important implications for communicating science through documentary form. (1) By combining self-report items with behavioral ones, it is possible to construct a valid scale for measuring individuals’ motivation to consume science information for personal satisfaction (i.e., science curiosity). (2) Professions of disbelief in evolution are not a barrier to engagement with appropriately crafted scientific information on evolution.  (3) The differential science curiosity and engagement of one group supports the hypothesis that some fraction of the potential audience for science documentaries is discouraged form viewing them by the uncongenial cultural meanings.